11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders

Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Warren, Henry F., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Studies have shown that there are much higher instances of mental disorder in political leaders and creative geniuses than in the general population. And while it's impossible to be completely sure of a correct diagnosis of a historical figure, that hasn't stopped researchers from making educated guesses. Here's a speculative look at the mental health of 11 of history's big thinkers.

1. ABRAHAM LINCOLN // DEPRESSION

The Great Emancipator managed to lead the country through one of its more trying times, despite suffering from severe depression most of his life. According to one Lincoln biographer, letters left by the president's friends referred to him as "the most depressed person they've ever seen." On at least one occasion, he was so overcome with "melancholy" that he collapsed. Both his mother and numerous members of his father's family exhibited similar symptoms of severe depression, indicating he was probably biologically susceptible to the illness. Lincoln is even assumed to be the author of a poem published in 1838, "The Suicide's Soliloquy," which contains the lines:

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

2. LUDWIG VON BEETHOVEN // BIPOLAR DISORDER

When the composer died of liver failure in 1827, he had been self-medicating his many health problems with alcohol for decades. Sadly, much of what he may have suffered from probably could have been managed with today's medications, including a serious case of bipolar disorder. Beethoven's fits of mania were well known in his circle of friends, and when he was on a high he could compose numerous works at once. It was during his down periods that many of his most celebrated works were written. Sadly, that was also when he contemplated suicide, as he told his brothers in letters throughout his life. During the early part of 1813 he went through such a depressive period that he stopped caring about his appearance, and would fly into rages during dinner parties. He also stopped composing almost completely during that time.

3. EDVARD MUNCH // PANIC ATTACKS

The world's most famous panic attack occurred in Olso during January 1892. Munch recorded the episode in his diary:

"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature."

This experience affected the artist so deeply he returned to the moment again and again, eventually making two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph based on his experience, as well as penning a poem derived from the diary entry. While it isn't known if Munch had any more panic attacks, mental illness did run in his family; at the time of his episode, his bipolar sister was in an asylum.

4. MICHELANGELO // AUTISM

You might have wondered in the past just how someone could paint something as huge as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. According to a paper published in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2004, Michelangelo's single-minded routine may have been due to the disorder. According to descriptions by his contemporaries, the painter was "preoccupied with his own reality." Most of the male members of his family are recorded to have exhibited similar symptoms. Michelangelo also seems to have had difficulty forming relationships with people; he had few friends and didn't even attend his brother's funeral. All of this, combined with his obvious genius in math and art, led the researchers to believe that today Michelangelo would be considered high functioning on the autism spectrum.

5. CHARLES DICKENS // DEPRESSION

By his early 30s, Dickens was the most famous author in the world. He was wealthy and seemed to have it all. But after an unbelievably difficult childhood, which saw the author working in a boot factory and living on his own when his father was thrown in prison, Dickens would start falling into depressions with the start of each new novel. The first one to cause him problems was one of his lesser-known works, The Chimes, in 1844. After that, Dickens' friends wrote that he became down every time he set to work on a new project, but that his mood would gradually lift until he was in a kind of mania by the time he finished. His depression worsened with age, and he eventually separated from his wife—the mother of his 10 children—to live with an 18-year-old actress. After he was involved in a train crash four years before his death, in which he was uninjured but was forced to assist dying passengers before help came, his depression seems to have finally staunched his creativity, and his previously prolific output virtually ceased.

6. CHARLES DARWIN // AGORAPHOBIA

Scholars still debate just exactly what problems Darwin suffered from, but whatever they were, they were serious. Despite his famed five year voyage on the Beagle (and the publication it led to) making his career, Darwin was virtually incapacitated the entire time. While he concentrated on his physical symptoms as the cause of all his suffering, the constant trembling, nausea, hysterical crying, and visual hallucinations (among other things) seem to have been mostly caused by a severe case of agoraphobia that kept him virtually bedridden from the time he turned 30. Darwin's fear of people meant he would even avoid conversations with his own children, writing, "I am forced to live… very quietly and am able to see scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations." In at least one letter he mentions feeling like committing suicide due to the publication of On the Origin of Species, the controversy over which caused him much distress. He may have also suffered from OCD and hypochondria, as he kept meticulous records of every new or recurring symptom.

7. WINSTON CHURCHILL // BIPOLAR DISORDER

Like Lincoln, Churchill was a great leader dealing not only with international strife but his own mental struggles at the same time. In his 30s, he complained to his friends that he was hounded by the "black dog of depression." He sat in the Houses of Parliament and contemplated suicide. Churchill told his doctor that he had to be careful where he stood in a train station:

"I don't like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through," he told his doctor. "I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don't like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second's action would end everything. A few drops of desperation."

The black dog would follow him the rest of his life. When in his mild manic phases he was personable, but his moods could change quickly. During periods of high mania he would stay up all night writing, eventually producing 43 books on top of attending to his political duties.

8. VASLAV NIJINSKY // SCHIZOPHRENIA

While not well-known today, in the early 1900s, Nijinsky was a household name. Considered the greatest male dancer of his era, he was famous for his intense performances, gigantic leaps, and ability to dance on his toes (en pointe), something uncommon among male dancers at the time. When he took to choreographing ballets, his modern take on the dance led to a riot. By the time Nijinsky was 26, the symptoms of his disease were affecting his work. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, often going weeks at a time without saying a word.

9. KURT GÖDEL // PERSECUTORY DELUSIONS

Gödel was a brilliant logician and mathematician, as well as a contemporary and great friend of Albert Einstein. Einstein's super-intelligence might have made him seem a little odd to the average person, but he doesn't seem to have suffered from any actual mental illnesses. Gödel, on the other hand, thought that someone was out to poison him. He was so sure of this delusion, especially later in life, that he would only eat food that his wife had cooked, and usually made her taste it first, just to be sure. When his wife was hospitalized for six months, Gödel stopped eating and starved to death.

10. LEO TOLSTOY // DEPRESSION

Tolstoy did not suffer from obvious signs of depression until middle age, but when it hit him, it hit hard. He went through serious personality changes, questioning virtually everything in his life. At times he debated giving away all of his possessions, becoming celibate, and the nature of his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). At one point he was determined to give up writing altogether, saying, "art is not only useless but even harmful." Tolstoy is a perfect example of someone who seemingly has everything brought low by this disease: despite coming from a wealthy family, being celebrated as an author, and being father to 13 children, eventually his demons drove him to seriously consider suicide. He wrote in one letter, "The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself." Eventually Tolstoy pulled himself out of this hole by becoming what we would now consider a born-again Christian.

11. ISSAC NEWTON // BIPOLAR, AUTISM, SCHIZOPHRENIA

One of the greatest scientists of all time is also the hardest genius to diagnose, but historians agree he had a lot going on. Newton suffered from huge ups and downs in his moods, indicating bipolar disorder, combined with psychotic tendencies. His inability to connect with people could place him on the autism spectrum. He also had a tendency to write letters filled with mad delusions, which some medical historians feel strongly indicates schizophrenia. Whether he suffered from one or a combination of these serious illnesses, they did not stop him from inventing calculus, explaining gravity, and building telescopes, among his other great scientific achievements.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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